Four years ago, C.J. Haydock was hired at Immanuel High as a 25-year-old with a two-year record of 19-34 as a varsity boys basketball coach.
“I don’t know why they hired me,” he says now, laughing.
Actually, Immanuel Schools superintendent Ryan Wood, explains, Haydock sold his intelligence, people skills and, above all, ambition consistent with an administration bent on establishing identity and reversing then-declining enrollment at the tiny campus on Reed Avenue in west Reedley.
“There were a lot of empty seats in the classrooms,” Wood says of the K-12 private school.
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Today, there are none, necessitating future campus expansion.
“Maxed out,” says Wood, citing a 35% increase in enrollment, from 385 to 520, in two years at schools calling for tuitions of $5,350 (elementary), $6,400 (middle) and $7,800 (high school).
Wood says nearly half the students receive financial assistance available in large part because of an Immanuel community that has stepped forward with thousands in annual donations.
The growth includes a rise from 220 to 280 at the high school.
Of those 60, most noticeable are these five: Colin Slater, R.J. Horn, Darrin Person Jr., Dario Aluisi and Nate Kendricks.
Who are they?
Effectively, a former Clovis Unified all-star team now bearing jersey Nos. 14, 11, 32, 21 and 12 in Immanuel red, white and blue.
Who are they?
Not a senior among them, the Division-IV Eagles are 16-2, taking on all-comers of all sizes from Fresno to Bakersfield, and whipping them while soaring to the top spot in The Bee’s overall Central Section rankings. They’ve been beaten only by state D-II heavyweights Modesto Christian and El Cerrito.
“When I came to Immanuel,” says Haydock, a Fresno Christian graduate and former Madera-Liberty Ranchos head coach, “I had a big dream and a big vision. But I never thought it would get here this fast.”
He and Wood continue to insist they didn’t anticipate a collection of basketball stars, particularly from a district — Clovis Unified — that has a history of attracting them, not losing them. They say players were not recruited.
Slater and Horn, as sophomores, and Person Jr. and Aluisi, as freshmen, arrived en masse in 2013. Kendricks — nephew of football stars Mychal (Philadephia Eagles) and Eric (UCLA) Kendricks — came last fall.
Former successful Immanuel coach John Thiessen, who still attends games regularly, calls Kendricks the best freshman he’s ever seen.
“We never expected them to come,” Wood says. “What we do expect now is we have become an option, offering a cutting-edge product in education. We improved facilities and hired great coaches. Do those things and kids take notice. We’re pushing, for sure. And successful athletics brings free advertising. Win and more athletes look at you. There are kids interested in Immanuel that wouldn’t even look our way 10 years ago.”
The basketball boon, however, has invited scrutiny, controversy and — in the case of Slater — drew a penalty.
Slater was an All-State Freshman selection by Cal-Hi Sports two years ago at Clovis North and his move to Immanuel was found to be “athletically motivated,” by section commissioner Jim Crichlow, costing him his sophomore season.
Immanuel officials remained steamed: “We felt Colin was done an incredible injustice,” Haydock says.
That’s then, today’s now.
And Monday night, after his talented Edison team was throttled, 77-61, in an MLK Showcase game at College of the Sequoias that the Eagles led by as many as 28 points, coach T.J. Wilkins called Slater the section’s best player.
The 6-foot point guard with flowing dreadlocks wrapped as a thick pony tail has already been offered scholarships by Fresno State, Chicago State, San Jose State, Hawaii, UC-Santa Barbara and Tulane. Stanford and Harvard have also intensified interest in the student with a 3.8 grade-point average, averages of 19.6 in points, 3.9 in assists and 1.5 in steals, and remarkable shooting percentages of 89 in free throws and 49 in 3-pointers
“His talent makes him one in a million,” Haydock says. “His character makes him one in a billion.”
Playing conditions at Immanuel now beg for strong character throughout the roster for a team targeted by opposing fans.
Tuesday night at Kingsburg for example, the Vikings’ student section let it rip: “Stop recruiting (clap, clap — clap, clap, clap). Stop recruiting (clap, clap — clap, clap, clap). Stop recruiting (clap, clap — clap, clap, clap).”
Haydock, quoting the late coach John Wooden of UCLA: “ ‘It’s a weakness to get caught up in praise or criticism.’ We have nothing to hide. We’re not fearful. Scrutiny doesn’t scare us.”
Christopher Joseph Haydock also helps insulate the team with extraordinary preparation (at least two films on every opponent) and a qualified staff.
In counts offensive coordinator Nate McClurg, cousin of former Central Valley Christian star and current Stanford player Grant Verhoeven, and nephew of his father, former Hanford standout and NBA player Pete Verhoeven; Josh Justin, a former two-time D-V winning coach at Fresno Christian; and former Edison star and four-year college player ShaRunn Jones.
With scrutiny also comes pressure, especially when you’re the little guy standing atop the big ones.
“When you get into coaching, you sign up for the pressure,” Haydock says. “That’s an early disclaimer. And the pressure dissipates when you don’t get ahead of yourself.
“I have the most supportive community in the world, and a superintendent (Ryan) who gets it right. It’s about faith, top to bottom. We’re a Christian school and a by-product of value and who we are. That sums it up.”